Tuesday, August 29, 2017

In an Ideal World

By Rosalind Cresswell

In an interview with Nate Szyman and Rob Petito—as part of a project with the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program and sponsored by the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration (MOPC) on a statewide “community mediation visioning process”—I remember being asked what community mediation would look like in an ideal world.

The question was asked of everyone during initial stakeholder interviews for the project. The MOPC runs the publicly funded grant program for Community Mediation Centers (CMC) across the state.  Representatives of each of the twelve centers, and others connected to the field, were interviewed. Nate and Rob, skillful neutrals with no skin in the game, captured our hopes and dreams and then helped us refine them together by facilitating a large group retreat to generate potential joint visions. After operating the Grant Program for five years, it seemed a good point to step back and acknowledge achievements and think about the future together.

There is great strength in collaborative thinking and problem solving, which is the very essence of our work as mediators and dispute resolution professionals. Freed from the constraints of funding it is easy to dream big. What would it be like if anyone involved in conflict or fearful of its consequences knew and thought first about seeking to resolve it with support from a neutral? What if anyone who needed this support, but could otherwise not access it, could obtain services free or at low cost through a local CMC? What if this awareness started in schools where young people were taught as part of their basic school curriculum about managing conflict and had tools available to them like restorative justice circles and peer support? What if every public agency could access services to resolve conflict which would reduce homelessness, recidivism, substance abuse, and the other societal challenges with which public agencies wrestle? What if public disputes could be handled through facilitated processes of deliberation and civic engagement where opportunities to hear different points of view were encouraged and consensus built? What if police and courts routinely reached first for de-escalation tools and used low cost interventions before legal processes were implemented? What if you could dial a 911 equivalent for conflict or “have an app for that”? What if CMCs were viewed as a crucial point of access to justice? In short what if conflict resolution was ubiquitous and accessible to all?

And yet realistically funding is a constraint. It holds such significance that, although mindful that seeking funding was not visionary in itself, it remained uppermost in people’s minds during our retreat because any vision arrived at was just a dream without appropriate funding. Since 2013 when a community mediation statute was first enacted in Massachusetts on the strength of an MOPC legislative study, the CMC Grant Program has received on average $750,000 a year in state appropriations resulting in grants averaging 40% of the Center’s operational budgets. Annual evaluations show the Program has leveraged over $10 million per year in cost savings and other resources through the efforts of a strong network of 500+ volunteer mediators. Not a bad annual rate of return on investment! However, as I write this, there is no state funding for the coming year and therefore it is difficult to think in a visionary way while services to schools, towns, businesses, families, housing, social service agencies, and many of the over 8,000 people receiving mediation services annually, will be left without access to justice. On top of that, funding to CMCs from other sources has just been reduced on average by 20%, which places them in further jeopardy.

It is clear to all of us that ubiquity has a price. In some states community mediation funding comes from state appropriations independently or administered through the trial court as it used to be in Massachusetts. Money is often raised through small levies on court filing fees while others sell “peace” vehicle license plates. Most states encourage using appropriations to leverage donations and grants, and some allow fee-for-service work to supplement funding. Although Massachusetts houses one of the original state dispute resolution offices, it has moved a long way from being at the forefront of conflict resolution services, as it was in the 1970s with Frank Sanders’ launch of multi-door courthouses.

Since I was asked the question and we are dreaming big, what if there was a way to fund generalized access and awareness for community mediation? Perhaps every state and local agency including the judiciary could pay a small levy based on the size of their overall budgets that would give them all direct access to free conflict resolution services, including training to build their own agency’s skills. This would provide places to refer their clients and, in return, millions could be saved by them through prevented, de-escalated, and resolved conflict. A CMC based program in Maryland showed significant reduction in recidivism rates and homelessness among prisoners taking part in mediation with their significant others pre-release, a program which is being piloted in Massachusetts, and which has considerable impact on police, court and correction budgets. The potential for savings across all levels of government is huge, while the money raised could fund widespread public access points as well as training and awareness-raising initiatives.

Everyone is aware of how the quality of social and political discourse has changed, how social media, instead of connecting people, has polarized them, and there are legitimate concerns about the increasing levels of stress felt by many in society leading to mental health and substance abuse crises. At a time when need is so high, is it really an ideal, unrealistic world that we envision? Rather than cutting budgets to programs aimed at supporting people in their very human conflicts, perhaps now is the time to dream big and to think creatively about ways to operationalize those dreams.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” and any, and all, visionary or creative further thoughts are welcome.


Rosalind Cresswell is the Program Manager of the Community Mediation Center Grant Program at the Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration, University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is an active  mediator with the Harvard Mediation Program, trainer, facilitator, and contributor to the Massachusetts Trial Court Committees on mediation standards and development. She has extensive experience working as an Ombudsman in healthcare and municipal Government. Views expressed here reflect the writer’s response to the “ideal world” question and are not official policy of MOPC, the Grant Program or any of its members.